Kids usually do the best they know how to express their feelings. The best they can do is usually quite immature and unrefined. A problem occurs when, instead of validating our kids’ feelings when they do the best they can to express them and helping them learn to give feelings appropriate words, we minimize, invalidate, or even punish their expression.
Sometimes conflict with our kids can seem to arise out of nowhere. Or, a conversation that seemed to be over something relatively minor can explode with little warning into a full-fledged battle.
Why does this happen?
A lot of the time, it’s because of emotions under the surface.
Watch the video below to hear about the time I discovered an iceberg of emotions in the middle of a conflict with my daughter, Bethany.
We talk a lot here at CF about the power of empathy to build bridges of influence to children’s hearts – even when they misbehave. So we loved this animated 3-minute video of Dr. Brene Brown speaking about the difference between empathy and sympathy. As you watch, consider the application for you and your children.
We often see a common parenting cycle when kids are prone to anxiety. In short, it goes like this:
- Child feels anxious
- Worried, but well-meaning parent “encourages” the child toward to overcome the anxiety by pushing the child
- The child gets more anxious and withdraws, or has a meltdown in order to feel in control
- The child feels more ashamed and anxiety builds
- Parents feel scared about the future and the anxious (and usually very emotionally sensitive) child picks up on this and grows even more anxious
- Repeat at increasingly higher intensity
This cycle might be about homework, new experiences, social situations, or any number of challenges.
In response to a recent Facebook post we shared, Michelle, one of our followers, shared a fantastic story of connecting with her little one even in the midst of disrespectful misbehavior:
Kids struggle. So do adults. Not rocket science, but profound nonetheless, and easy to forget.
When we find ourselves in a parenting struggle, many times our natural inclination is to end it right now, at all costs. Squash it. Squelch it. Just make it stop!
Often times our emotion drives our response to our child. Perhaps it is embarrassment for the child’s behavior in a public place or in front of someone we were hoping would think highly of us. Perhaps it is frustration from the piles of laundry and dirty dishes. Maybe it is from the hurtful words spoken to us by a friend or colleague. Maybe it doesn’t have much to do with our child at all. And all we can think of at the moment of the struggle is, “How can I make this stop?”
When the goal is making it stop we become like opposing goalies in our child’s eyes. Our primary objective is to keep the ball (or puck, depending on your preferred sport) out of the net. Whatever their question, our answer is no. We are the opposition, an obstacle to be defeated or “gotten by” in order to get what they want rather than a teammate with whom they seek to cooperate. This, of course, leads to the classic power struggle.
It’s at times like this that we have an important opportunity. What will we do in this frustrated, exasperated place?
“Mommy, I want it! Can I have it? I want it NOW!”
When we hear this sort of thing from our kids, knowing that what they want is not really something they need, we’re inclined to quickly pronounce, “No!” Some kids may accept this answer, but most will quickly escalate into a power struggle.
Either way, to quickly pronounce “No!” is to miss a great opportunity to help a child learn responsibility and wisdom. It tends instead to create in them an even stronger compulsion to get stuff as a way of feeling significant.
But you can help them feel significant in much more constructive ways helping them learn to think it through for themselves. This can be hard work at first, but it pays off great dividends in the long run.
Unfortunately, as kids grow up learning that anger is bad, if they aren’t equipped with ways of dealing with their anger, they tend to do one of two things. They either develop the habit of fighting for the sake of gaining control or they build a habit of “fleeing” (avoiding conflict and stuffing feelings) in order to escape the pain of conflict. Psychologists call this “fight or flight.”
Habitual fighters somehow believe there is significance gained in the fight for power and control. They become overtly angry and aggressive about too many things. They react quickly and unreasonably to the things that anger them. Almost every child’s first expressions of anger are some form of fighting. But if kids regularly get sternly confronted or angrily punished for these expressions, they quickly learn from their parents’ example that anger is a weapon. They either keep fighting harder in order to win, or they learn to flee because they know they can’t win.
Kids who flee get quiet. They get sad. They withdraw into worlds of their own and do little if anything to let us know they’re angry. The most troubling thing when kids “take flight” is that at first glance they don’t seem angry. They are often compliant to our requests. They don’t like the requests, or the feel of being controlled, but they don’t have the will or energy to fight. So they give in and coast along. But there is a limit to how much anger they can hold in. So they have to express it somehow.
Could it be that the reason Jesus is so appealing to us, the reason we want to follow him, is that we see throughout the Gospels that he “gets” people?
He knows us. He understands us. He meets us where we are. Hebrews 4:15 states it clearly – “we have a high priest who empathizes with our every weakness.”
Could it also be that, as the people given the job of representing “Jesus with skin on” to our kids, we are strongly called to empathize with our kids in their weaknesses?
Little Jerome was tagging along with his mom on a mission. “Mom, I can have this?” he pleaded. They were in the cereal aisle, and mom was comparing the labels of generic raisin bran and the brand name equivalent. Jerome was pointing at the Fruit Loops a few feet away.
Mom glanced at him for a brief second, proclaiming “No, hon,” and then continued her label analysis.
Jerome got louder. “Mom! I want Fruit Loops. We never get Fruit Loops!”
Mom grew visibly irritated, as if she knew where this might head if she didn’t quickly nip it in the bud. “Jerome, you know we are not getting Fruit Loops. Now put those back and get over here.” Jerome was hesitant. “You listen to me young man!” She was firm. “Do I need to put you in the cart?” Jerome held the box close to his chest. Mom set the bran down and, as if she knew she had an audience, huffed, “Why doesn’t this kid ever listen?” She took the Fruit Loops from frowning Jerome, lifted him into the cart, grabbed a couple of the bran boxes and scurried away.
As she rounded the corner I silently answered her question. “Your kid doesn’t listen because you don’t listen to him.”